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File Desmet

The archive of Jean Desmet (1875 - 1956) is one of the main components of the Eye collection, for two reasons: it contains many unique materials, and it is quite large. Desmet was a leading film-industry entrepreneur in the 1910s. This was the age when film, which began as a fairground attraction, was beginning to assume a place of its own: in the cinema.

Jean Desmet.
Jean Desmet.

Desmet was one of the pioneering early cinema operators in the Netherlands, and he also documented and preserved almost everything that had to do with his business: not only bookkeeping and films, but also posters, advertisements, and memos.
This resulted in an extraordinary archive, which received worldwide recognition in 2011 when UNESCO included it in its Memory of the World Register.
With photos, letters, posters, and films from this archive, here we tell the story of Jean Desmet and his film legacy.
It begins on the fairground.

Fairground man

Jean Desmet was born near Brussels on 26 August, 1875, but the family soon moved to Den Bosch. His father, Maréchal Desmet, was a poor merchant with a meagre textile business.
He died in 1893. Jean’s mother Rosine then began travelling to the fairgrounds to sell pottery; as the eldest son, Jean Desmet helped her. His mother died a year after his father.

Jean Desmet (second from the right) next to caravan.
Jean Desmet (second from the right) next to caravan.
Jean Desmet with family.
Jean Desmet with family.

Young breadwinner

Although Jean was not even twenty years old, he had to provide for his five siblings, the youngest of whom was temporarily sent to an orphanage. This responsibility certainly contributed to his decision to become a full-time fairground entrepreneur, although he did not come from a typical fairground family.
He expanded his mother’s business to include barrel organs, which he also rented out to others. In 1896, he married Catharina Dahrs. A year later, the couple began running an attraction called the “Miracle Wheel of Adventure” ("Wonderrad van Avontuur"). Their children Catherina (1898) and Maréchal (1899) travelled with them when they were still young, and later went to boarding school.

Attractions

It was decided that the Miracle Wheel was a form of gambling, and in 1905 it was forbidden. That lead Desmet to start working with another popular fad, the toboggan, which was a high spiral slide.
Toboggans were popular, but not without risks; more and more municipalities began banning the scaffolding from their fairgrounds. Desmet therefore had to find a new attraction to run. In 1907, he bought a travelling cinema called “The Imperial Bio”.

Jean Desmet with a barrel organ.
Jean Desmet with a barrel organ.
Desmet's Miracle Wheel of Adventure advert.
Desmet's Miracle Wheel of Adventure advert.
The Imperial Bio in Groningen.
The Imperial Bio in Groningen.

Travelling cinema

Jean Desmet stepped into the business at a point when the travelling cinema had already become a proven success story: the first films were screened in the Netherlands in 1896, and they found their way to the fairgrounds almost immediately thereafter.
By the turn of the century, most fairs already had a cinema tent. And outside the fairground, films were also increasingly being screened in variety theatres that showed short films between the magic and dance acts. In the winter months, some fair exhibitors also rented small halls, and showed films there.
To be successful in this already rather crowded market, Desmet decked out his tent with a striking façade, and also provided a luxuriously decorated interior. Because he already had a steam engine that provided power for the toboggan, he could provide both of these attractions with electric lighting; in the evening, this formed an attraction in itself.

The whole family takes part

Desmet was a man who took advantage of every chance to make money; for an entrance fee of ten cents, visitors could even view his opulently decorated caravan.
The whole family was involved in running the attractions; his wife Catherina, his brother-in-law, and his wife all travelled along with him. Desmet’s children travelled along during their school holidays. His younger brothers were also in the fairground business; Ferdinand operated dance tents and an Alpine slide, Mathijs also ran a dance tent and Theo ran a so-called “shrapnel kitchen”, where all the plates could be smashed.
In the meantime, Jean had set his sights on something else; in the larger cities the first permanent cinemas began to appear.

Interior of Desmet's caravan.
Interior of Desmet's caravan.

Cinema owner

The film landscape changed rapidly during this period: the first permanent cinema opened in the Netherlands in 1906. In the first few years, there were a handful of them. On 13 March, 1909, Desmet opened a permanent cinema in Rotterdam: the Cinema Parisien on the Korte Hoogstraat.
After opening the Parisien, his travelling cinema still continued for at least another year on the fairgrounds, but Desmet was not always there to run it himself. In the following years, he would build a network of cinemas, not only in Rotterdam, but also in Amsterdam and other cities.

Crowd pleaser
Desmet, then, was both an exhibitor and a distributor of films, but not a producer. Yet he did commission several films, in the tradition of the travelling cinema, where the screening of locally shot footage was a great crowd-pleaser.
Such a film commisioned by Desmet is Bezoek van de koninklijke familie te Rotterdam:

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Bezoek van de koninklijke familie te Rotterdam.

In September of 1913, Jean Desmet had this film made when the royal family was visiting the city. We see a crowd of people on the street, striving to catch a glimpse of Queen Wilhelmina and Prince Hendrik. The couple made a number of trips through the city in an open carriage, and also went on a boat ride.
Of course, Desmet ensured that his Rotterdam cinemas were prominently visible in these films: Cinema Parisien and Cinema Royal, Desmet’s second cinema theatre that had just opened on the Coolsingel. The staff of the Parisien posed in front of the entrance.
At Cinema Royal, we can see the posters for the films Lastertongen (Il veleno delle parole, 1913, Celio film) and De loerende dood (Den lurende Död, 1913, Dania Biofilm). Cinema Parisien was showing De valsche edelman ontmaskerd (La tutela, 1913, Celio Film).

Poster Lasertongen.
Poster Lasertongen.
Poster De loerende dood.
Poster De loerende dood.

Cinema chain

But meanwhile Desmet had been looking beyond Rotterdam. In 1910 he started a cinema at the Amsterdam Nieuwendijk, also called Parisien. And that was not all. With the help of his relatives, Desmet owned cinemas in cities including Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Vlissingen, Amersfoort, Eindhoven and Bussum. As a cinema owner, Desmet was involved in at least 10 cinemas.

Paperwork

In this period, the amount of paperwork for Desmet increased dramatically: from payrolls and taxes to insurances and maintenance agreements. He kept everything in his archive; one can see in detail how the business side of the cinema boom worked.
But the letters of application he received and other correspondence concerning his staff speak in a much more direct way. Desmet kept everything: the card of the narrator who recommends himself, the letter of application of a projectionist, and copies of references he gave some of his former employees, some generous, others stingy.

Card of a narrator who recommends himself.
Card of a narrator who recommends himself.
A copy of a reference he gave some of his former employees (a generous one).
A copy of a reference he gave some of his former employees (a generous one).
The letter of application of a projectionist.
The letter of application of a projectionist.
A copy of a reference he gave some of his former employees (a stingy one).
A copy of a reference he gave some of his former employees (a stingy one).

Distributor

How did the cinemas get new films every week? Running a permanent cinema was a very different matter than running a film tent: because exhibitors travelled around with a carnival or fair, the audience in each new place was new, and the same films could be shown again and again.
But in a permanent cinema building, the audience always came from the same area, which meant that sometimes there were new films on the programme twice a week. Films were also a lot shorter than they are now, so five or six titles were needed for a full evening’s entertainment. First of all, theatres bought and resold films from and to each other.
In the early days of the permanent cinemas, in 1906, the makers of the films (the producers) were also the sellers -- sometimes after they had screened the films themselves. Desmet for example sometimes bought films (newsreels) from the Mullens brothers.

Advert for Cinema Parisien.
Advert for Cinema Parisien.

A night at the cinema in 1915

Desmet left behind about a thousand films. From his company archive, we can conclude that there were once many more films than that, but many of the films that he had in distribution have not been preserved.
But from some of the programmes, we still have (almost) all of the films. Here you can see a film programme as it was screened during the first week of January 1915, in the Bellamy cinema located in Vlissingen.

Watch like it's 1915

First steps

The first distributors had to ply their trade by trial and errors, because permanent cinemas were a new phenomenon. The more cinemas there were, the more demand there was for films. And the easier it became to get films, the more cinemas appeared.
In 1910, Desmet set up his own film rental and distribution company, with which he also earned money from other cinemas. He opened his Internationaal Filmverhuurkantoor Jean Desmet on the Nieuwendijk in Amsterdam in the same building where he ran Parisien.

Boom years

At film fairs, he bought entire film programmes that he would then rent out to Dutch cinema owners, including the film posters. At the end of 1911, he started renting out individual films. Within a few years, he had become one of the largest distributors in the Netherlands.

Renting out films to the bicycle shop

Desmet's distribution business was active in all corners of the country: he delivered mainly, but not exclusively to cinemas. Various other companies organized film screenings as well: Hotels, bars, concert halls - but also a steam powered carpentry and a manufacturer of bicycles.
Desmet's distribution company came to full bloom in the early tens. The leaflets from this period that were distributed as promotional flyers give a good impression of the kind of films that Desmet rented out:

Leaflet film De fideele schoonzoon.
Leaflet film De fideele schoonzoon.
Leaflet film Kerstgedachten.
Leaflet film Kerstgedachten.

Desmet remarried in 1912, to Hendrica ‘Rika’ Klabou, whom he had met at the fairs. The couple had one daughter, Jeanne.

Real estate entrepreneur

Along with several family members, Desmet operated cinemas in cities including Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Vlissingen, Amersfoort, Eindhoven, and Bussum. But around 1915, business becomes more difficult.

The First World War: the tide turns

The First World War broke out in the summer of 1914, and although the Netherlands remained neutral, the production of European films shrank considerably. American films filled the gap, but the American production companies had their own requirements, which did not help Desmet’s film distribution business in terms of profitability. In 1916, he stopped buying films. He also began to sell his cinemas, and to focus more on leasing real estate.

Real estate success

Desmet became the majority shareholder in the real estate companies Fortuna and Roggeveen. Fortuna managed appartments on the Nieuwe Prinsengracht, Roggeveen a number of plots in the Roggeveenstraat. Desmet was a formal and business-minded landlord, which meant that his companies did well.
His brother-in-law Piet Klabou (the brother of his wife Rika) became one of his regular business partners, and owned minority shares. Desmet became the director of both companies. Later, he brought his daughter Jeanne and her husband into the business.

Rika Hopper theatre in 1926.
Rika Hopper theatre in 1926.
Interior Variété Flora after fire, 12 February 1929.
Interior Variété Flora after fire, 12 February 1929.

Flora Palace

Yet it seemed that he never stopped dreaming about films and fairground lights. Not only because he always maintained ownership of his Parisien cinema in Amsterdam, but also because he kept working for years on a megaproject that was never realized: the Flora Palace.
In 1928, he founded a new real estate company: NV Madrid, which was exclusively dedicated to building a gigantic new entertainment complex on Amstelstraat 20-28 in Amsterdam, the site of the former Variété Flora.
It was a plan that had no equal in the Netherlands: the Flora Palace was to accommodate a theatre with 2250 seats, an indoor ice-skating rink, a cabaret, and a rooftop garden with a cafe-restaurant. This called for an architect who had experience with ambitious projects: Jan Wils, the architect of the stadium where the 1928 Olympics were held.

Jean Desmet died in 1956, at the age of 81. He donated a great number of films and most of his archive to the Filmmuseum, which was the predecessor of Eye.

Jean Desmet.
Jean Desmet.

Unique film collection

His estate also contained about a thousand films, mostly from the period 1910-1915. Most of the films are less than fifteen minutes in length, which was typical of films from that age. This is a very special collection of films, because most of the films from the early decades of cinema have since been lost; they became worn down after repeated screenings, and often were eventually destroyed. Sometimes attempts were made to recover silver from the film emulsion.
It was also unusual to store old films, because the material that films used to be made of, cellulose nitrate, was very flammable. If the films were not deliberately destroyed, they often went up in flames accidentally. Moreover, films were seen as disposable objects, usually with little cultural value.

Early film archives and 'sensible' films

All of this meant that meant that if a cinephile felt the need to preserve some films, he would need to be selective. This meant that at first, only films that were considered to be of artistic and educational merit were preserved, for example in the Dutch Central Film Archive, which was established in 1919.

Crowd pleasers

Desmet, on the other hand, bought films because of their commercial potential, and the films that he left behind are special in their ordinariness: they show what the regular cinemas were screening at the time, the crowd pullers that filled most of the shows.

Jean Desmet with a barrel organ.
Jean Desmet with a barrel organ.

Eye and Desmet

In 1957, the first items from the Desmet Collection came to the Dutch Filmmuseum, the predecessor of Eye. At the time the Filmmuseum was a very small institution, and most of its attention went to the films.

Preservation practices

Until the eighties it was common practice to preserve coloured nitrate-based films by copying them to black and white acetate film. Not only was black and white cheaper and chemically more stable than a colour copy, but colourings in silent film were also considered to be incidental additives which could be ignored.

Colour restorations

But the times were changing. A new generation of film scholars found that colouring was actually so prevalent in silent nitrate, it should be considered an integral part of early cinema.
The Filmmuseum was one of the first film archives to change its restoration policy, mainly because of the films in the Desmet collection. In 1986 and 1987, colour restorations of Desmet films caused quite a stir when they were screened at Giornate del Cinema Muto – the most important international festival for silent film. Some critics thought the colours made the films look garish and vulgar, but others were very enthusiastic and felt a new standard had been set.

Unknown masterpieces

Not only the splendour of the colours took the audiences by surprise. Also, some of the films were recognized as masterpieces very few people had ever heard of. Suddenly, the Desmet Collection had the attention of eminent film historians from Europe and the United States.

More than 100.000 pages

Although most photos and posters had been catalogued and scanned earlier on, an inventory of Desmet’s paper archive - mostly business papers and administration - took years to complete. The sheer amount of documents is daunting; when the paper archive was digitized, the result was more than 100.000 scans.
Only when the paper archive was thoroughly studied in the 1990s, it became clear that Desmet did not abandon all his film-related activities after 1920, as had previously been thought.
The first scientific work on the Desmet Collection appeared with the PhD research of film historian Ivo Blom in 2000. In 2003 the English edition of his thesis came available: Jean Desmet and Early Dutch Film Trade.

Full filmography

Filmography Desmet Collection

Watch

A selection of the films from the Desmet collection is available online.

You can watch them here